Waste Management, Casella announce halt to plastic waste exports to countries with poor waste management

by Perry Wheeler

October 16, 2019

Washington, DC – Two major waste management companies, Waste Management and Casella Waste Systems, along with several smaller companies, have stated that they are no longer exporting plastic waste outside of North America. Since June 2019, Greenpeace, The Last Beach Cleanup, and Plastic Pollution Coalition have communicated with more than 50 of the largest U.S. waste management companies urging them to stop exporting plastic waste due to the social and environmental harm to receiving countries, as detailed in more than sixty international investigations.

“Waste management companies should not be exporting plastic waste for other countries to clean up our mess,” said Greenpeace USA Oceans Campaign Director John Hocevar. “The U.S. is offloading plastic onto countries with poor waste management in hopes of pushing our pollution crisis out of sight, but this only shifts the burden to others that lack the capacity to deal with it. Waste Management and Casella have made the right call by committing to eliminate plastic waste exports, but landfills, incineration, or other plastics-to-fuel technologies are not the solution. It’s time to stop making so much single-use plastic.”

In response to the groups’ requests to stop exporting, John Casella, CEO of Casella Waste Systems, stated in a letter, “Having spent the last 40 years as a champion of sustainable waste management, innovative recycling and recovery solutions – I am supportive of your request.”

Waste Management, the largest waste services company in the U.S., posted a new “Position on Plastics Exports,” stating: “With China’s ban on imports, plastic from across the globe began to move to a variety of countries that are not well equipped to handle the material, furthering the likelihood of more plastics entering rivers, waterways and oceans. In response to concerns about plastic in the environment, Waste Management is not shipping plastics collected on its residential recycling routes and processed in its single stream material recovery facilities to locations outside North America.”

For decades, plastic waste has been exported to other countries and counted as “recycled” by industrialized countries. In 2018 alone, the United States exported 1.1 billion kg of plastic waste, with 78 percent landing in regions with poor waste management systems, including Hong Kong, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand, Turkey, and Vietnam. These countries have served as dumping grounds for the world’s plastic waste, then are named as the largest contributors to ocean plastic pollution. Importation of cheap subsidized plastic waste from the U.S. prevents other countries from investing in and creating domestic collection systems for their own plastic waste.

2019 Greenpeace investigation found that U.S. plastic waste exports significantly increased to several countries, mostly in Southeast Asia, following China’s ban on foreign waste. The investigation raised major red flags around what happens to plastic that people attempt to recycle in the U.S. Since China’s ban, countries like Malaysia, Vietnam, Thailand, and Indonesia have begun to put measures in place to halt this influx of waste and in some cases, send it back. Container ships have already begun to arrive in the U.S. with rejected single-use plastic from Indonesia.

“Actions to find markets for discarded plastic materials collected in U.S. communities should not negatively impact communities in other countries,” said Jan Dell, independent engineer and founder of The Last Beach Cleanup. “The most recent export data shows U.S. plastic waste now going to Djibouti, Ghana, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. These countries need our support to stop plastic pollution, not our plastic waste.”

Other waste companies that have responded stating that they do not export municipal plastic waste include Resource Management Companies (Chicago Ridge, Illinois), Single Stream Recyclers (Sarasota, Florida), and TFC Recycling (Chesapeake, Virginia). A complete listing of company responses to the groups’ letters is posted on The Last Beach Cleanup website.

As exports drop, the groups are also asking waste management companies for transparency around where the waste is going instead. Incineration and landfilling plastic waste domestically will simply shift the pollution burden to communities in the U.S.

“It’s immoral for the U.S. to still be shipping our plastic pollution overseas expecting other countries to deal with it or ‘recycle’, often in unsafe conditions,” said Dianna Cohen, co-founder and CEO of Plastic Pollution Coalition. “There is no ‘away.’ The opportunity here is for companies to address the plastic pollution they have created by looking upstream, and moving from ‘disposable’ to ‘reusable’ toward a world free of plastic pollution.”

In a written statement, the Alliance of Mission-Based Recyclers said, “Recyclers should only be collecting materials that have stable, traceable, and transparent end-markets, prioritizing markets that create products that are again recyclable. We are concerned that these companies are citing ‘beneficial use’ as potential domestic alternatives to export, which could include any number of greenwashed false solutions like plastics to fuel or waste-to-energy.”

The responsibility should not rest on waste management and recycling companies alone. For the vast majority of single-use plastic, there are no good options for managing it. The plastics industry, consumer goods companies, and retailers are being urged to stop producing and selling single-use plastics that are not responsibly recyclable and end up polluting communities and our environment worldwide.

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Contact: Perry Wheeler, Greenpeace USA Senior Communications Specialist, P: 301-675-8766

Perry Wheeler

By Perry Wheeler

Perry Wheeler is a senior communications specialist at Greenpeace USA.

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